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Shijing

Translation

The kudzu is spreading,
extending through the valley,
its foliage lush.
Siskins in flight
gather in the vines,
sounding cheep, cheep.

The kudzu is spreading,
extending through the valley,
its foliage dense.
I cut it and steam it
to make fine and coarse cloth,
clothing I won’t tire of.

I tell my nurse,
tell her I’m going home.
I clean my underwear,
I wash my clothes.
Which are washed? Which not?
I’m going to visit my parents.

Original

葛之覃兮
施于中谷
維葉萋萋
黃鳥于飛
集于灌木
其鳴喈喈

葛之覃兮
施于中谷
維葉莫莫
是刈是濩
為絺為綌
服之無斁

言告師氏
言告言歸
薄污我私
薄澣我衣
害澣害否
歸寧父母

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When my wife last returned from China, she brought back an edition of the Shijing, the Chinese classic of songs. Thus begins my project to translate it. As always, feedback is welcome. Here’s the first poem. You can see an earlier post of mine about it here.

Translation

“Shut! Shut!” the fishhawk cries
from the sandbar in the river.
Demure, the noble lady,
fine bride for a gentleman.

Ragged, the floatingheart:
left and right we track it.
Demure, the noble lady:
awake, asleep, I seek her.

Seeking but not finding,
awake, asleep, I miss her.
With endlessly worrying,
I toss, and turn, and toss.

Ragged, the floatingheart:
left and right we pick it.
Demure, the noble lady:
qin and se befriend her.

Ragged, the floatingheart:
left and right we sift it.
Demure, the noble lady:
bells and drums amuse her.

Original

關關雎鳩
在河之洲
窈窕淑女
君子好逑

參差荇菜
左右流之
窈窕淑女
寤寐求之

求之不得
寤寐思服
悠哉悠哉
輾轉反側

參差荇菜
左右采之
窈窕淑女
琴瑟友之

參差荇菜
左右芼之
窈窕淑女
鍾鼓樂之

“Fair, fair,” cry the ospreys
On the island in the river.
Lovely is this noble lady,
Fit bride for our lord.

In patches grows the water mallow;
To left and right one must seek it.
Shy was this noble lady;
Day and night he sought her.

Sought her and could not get her;
Day and night he grieved.
Long thoughts, oh, long, unhappy thoughts,
Now on his back, now tossing on to his side.

In patches grows the water mallow;
To left and right one must gather it.
Shy is this noble lady;
With great zither and little we hearten her.

In patches grows the water mallow;
To left and right one must choose it.
Shy is this noble lady;
With bells and drums we will gladden her.


Above is the first poem in the Shijing (The Book of Songs, trans. Arthur Waley, ed. Joseph R. Allen). The interpretation of it that I shall offer does not pretend to accurately capture the intent of its author(s). Or, more precisely, there is an inflection point in the interpretation, which I will try to signal clearly, where I shift from fairly secure to quite uncertain ground.

Let us start with what appears to me beyond dispute. The first stanza introduces us to a lord and his (presumptive—hold the thought) bride. But where the first stanza suggests a poem of celebration, the second introduces a sorrowful note: he seeks her day and night, but she is shy, and evades him. This note is amplified in the next stanza, which confirms (if it was in any doubt) that, though he seeks her, he cannot find her.

Interestingly, the second stanza compares the lord’s search to the search for the water mallow, which grows in patches “to left and right.” I suspect, though I do not know, that “to left and right” is an idiom that means “everywhere” or “all over.” In this case, however, the literal meaning is important, too (here I am trusting that “to left and right” is something like a literal translation). For we see, in the third stanza, the lord’s sleep troubled by his grief: “Now on his back, now tossing on to his side.”

The power of this image comes from the parallel between the search for the water mallow (“to left and right one must seek it”) and the lord’s tossing and turning: he seeks her in his sleep. The water mallow is not a generic image of searching for what is difficult to find, but an image that matches his particular search.

At this point I leave firm ground behind. On a first reading of the poem, the final two stanzas appear straightforwardly to suggest that he has found her, and that now he (and those around him) “hearten” and “gladden” her with zither and bells and drums. The modification of the image of the water mallow (from “seek” to “gather” and “choose”) especially suggests this. Ultimately, I think this is probably the most plausible reading of the poem. But I detect an undercurrent that enriches the poem.

There are a few elements of the poem that speak against the reading just offered. First is the continued description of the lady as shy. She is still evasive, still in need of reassurance, of being heartened and gladdened. And at this point we may recall that the first stanza tells us, not that she is his bride, but that she is fit to be his bride, which is something quite different.

But what most encourages me along these lines is that we are never told that he has found her. The third stanza ends with him seeking her in sleep. It is never indicated that he wakes up. Thus there is the possibility, impossible to rule out, that he has found her only in sleep, that he heartens and gladdens her only in sleep. It is even possible that the zither and drums and bells are not the happy conclusion of a successful search, but tools of the search itself, the means by which he attempts to draw her out of her shyness.

There are thus two possible readings of the poem. On the first, it captures the truest and most poetic of moods, exuberance flecked with sorrow. On the second, the sorrow predominates, the flecks encroach upon and overtake the whole. Were I forced to choose between them, I would likely take the first. But I would resent the choice, for the richness of the poem, as I read it, lies not in either reading but in the antagonism between the two.